The Benbow Historic Inn, a circa 1926 landmark on the Redwood Highway in Southern Humboldt County, is kicking off an ambitious expansion this summer, one that will draw creatively on its past and complete the original plans of its designers. Over its 90 years, the Tudor-style luxury inn has hosted the likes of Clark Gable, Joan Fontaine, Basil Rathbone, Eleanor Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Cher and the King of Jordan.
The Benbow family — all nine brothers and sisters — helped with the construction and operation of the inn in the early days. The family also constructed the Benbow Dam, a power station, and the nearby Benbow Golf Course and RV Park. However, the stock market crash of 1929 prevented them from building a planned second wing to complement the one on the west side. While the family managed to hold on to the property and thrive for decades, they eventually sold it in 1962. Since then it has changed hands several times, regularly earning four-diamond ratings and top awards from Wine Spectator for its menu.
Still, the east wing remained a dream, until now. "We're going to finish what the Benbows were not able to finish," said John Porter, co-owner of the inn since 1994. "Our goal is to make the renovations look as though they had always been this way." The $10 million project will include a revamped lobby, a swanky Wallace & Hinz cocktail bar, an upgraded kitchen and a three-story wing with an elevator and additional guest and meeting rooms. A historic annex nearby will be overhauled to serve as a conference center for up to 150 people. Despite adding modern conveniences, the owners, architects and builders are working closely together to blend the renovations seamlessly into the original architectural features, ensuring that the inn retains its status on the National Register of Historic Places.
Those efforts include studying architectural renderings from the inn's famed designer Albert Farr, poring over historic documents and photos, and interviewing descendants of the inn's original owners, some of whom still live nearby. Teresa Porter, John's wife and former Humboldt County Historical Society executive director serves as the inn's historian and will decorate the interior with period displays and furnishings, as well as keepsakes from the Benbows. "Carol [Benbow Bickler] and I are having such a blast doing this," she said.
And while they're keeping it 1926-real, workers used a backhoe to break ground, rather than the iron, horse-powered Fresno scraper used by the Benbows. That antique remains on site as a reminder of the old days.
The year-long development will also allow the hotel and restaurant to welcome everyone, improving access for guests with disabilities. That includes wheelchair access in the form of an entrance and rooms that comply with the American with Disabilities Act. "Many people have said that their parents brought them here as a child. The parents are now in their 90s and their kids want to bring them back," Porter said. "Soon they can do that with ease."
Rest assured, the inn will remain open during the construction, which is slated to finish in spring of 2017. So you can relax on the patio, enjoy the view of the Eel River and maybe listen to an outdoor jazz combo and think about the good old days to come.